The drug pusher lurks by school yards and tempts our youth.
The big time gambler bribes our police and corrupts our judges.
The gaudily dressed prostitute is an affront to our morality as well as a spreader of disease.
These images of so-called non-victim crime cause great apprehension in America.
Yet the economic and social costs of enforcing laws against these crimes are also great - perhaps too great compared to their benefits. In 1975, for example, 38 per cent of all arrests were for non-victim crimes, putting an enormous strain on our criminal justice system.
Actually, "non-victim" is really a misnomer. The major non-victim crimes - drug offenses, gambling, and prostitution - often do have victims: The participants themselves, their families, and often the whole society.
It would be more accurate to call these crimes "consensual," to emphasize that those participating in them do so willingly.
The consensual crimes that trouble us most are those in which human weakness, economic incentives toward criminality, and often a basic ambivalence toward the activity among a sizable number of people all interact.
Since those involved rarely, if ever, compalin to the police, attempts to suppress these activities have been notoriously ineffective and expensive, causing a substantial drain on the criminal justice system and increasing the social cost of the prohibited activities.
The strong moral and emotional evertons of these laws perhaps account for th great reluctance of our state legislatures to withdraw the sanctions of the criminal law in these areas. Yet there are reasons to be hopeful that decriminatlization will occur.
Fifty years ago, the most important non-victim crime was the violation of Prohibition. While alcoholism and drunkenness are still with us, the corruption adn strains on our criminal justice system caused by this crime disappeared after repeal.
Ten years ago, one of the leading non-victim crimes was abortion. Now, although abortion is still a subject of great political and moral concern, the diversion of resources to prosecute "abortion rings" has ended and the number of pregnant women killed in abortions has dropped sharply.
Drug offenses, primarily against the marijuana and heroin laws, may be regarded as the pototypes of non-victim crimes today.
The private nature of the sale and use of these drugs has led the police to resort to methods of detection and surveillance that intrude upon our privacy, including illegal search, eavesdropping, and entrapment.
Indeed, the successful prosecution of such cases often requires police infringement of the constitutional protections that safeguard the privacy of individuals.
The major charge against marijuana laws is that their enforcement accomplishes little, and at considerable cost. First, though no drug is completely safe, marijuana is simply not very dangerous, at least compared with alcohol. Second, the lack fo significant increase in marijuana use in those states which have "decriminalized" small-scale posession indicates tht criminal penalties for such conduct were never very effective.
We simply do not catch a high enough percentage of users to make the law a real threat, although we do catch enough to seriously overburden our legal system.
In the United States, in 1975, there were more than 400,000 marijuana arrests - most of which were for small-scale possession.
Moreover, criminal prosecution for the use of marijuana inflicts a sizable injury on many otherwise law-abiding youths and engenders hostility toward the police. In addition, since many users see no harm in marijuana, they have become skeptical of educational programs designed to lower use of "hand" drugs.
The laws prohibiting the sale of marijuana prevent both a users tax on sales, which could net government at least $500 million at present rates of consumption, and the exercise of controls similar to those of our alcohol licensing system.
Most important, legitimizing and regulating the sale of marijuana would weaken the link between marijuana and the more dangerous drugs.
Since drug sellers already are threatened with severe penalties if they are caught selling marijuana, they have little to lose, and more profit to gain, by converting their clientele to more dangerous drugs. Just as prohibition of alcohol did not suppress it but merely turned its marketing over to organized crime, so marijuana prohibition merely turns over the marketing of that drug to drug pushers.
The costs of the heroin laws are quite different from those against marijuana.
The law, prohibiting importation and sale, has raised the price of heroin far above what it would command in a legal market. But heroin, unlike marijuana, is seriously addicting, and hence the addict must come up with the necessary price of his habit. As a result, heroin addicts commit a very high percentage of crimes against property in our urban areas - an estimated 25 to 50 per cent in New York.
Proposals to ameliorate the heroin laws have focused on providing the drug or a closely related substitute, methadone, to addicts at low prices under medical conditions - thus lessening the addicts need for illegal income.
Other costs of enforcing laws against the "non-victim" crimes are illustrated y gambling.
Our effort to prevent people from losing more than they can afford has crowded our courts with gambling cases. The sentences are light - to avoid further overcrowding our jails - but the police are demoralized by thw hole process. According to the National Commission on Gambling, the huge profits from gambling provide the major source of police corruption in the United States as well as the single largest source of income to organized crime.
The final cost of prohibiting gambling is that it prevents hard-pressed state and local governments from earning revenue through taxation or operation of gambling enterprises. It is probably this fact that is changing our legal stance toward gambling. Numerous states are already experimenting with lotteries, off-track betting, and other formerly illegal gambling activities.
The other major non-victim crime in our society is prostitution. In most localities there is little attempt to interfere with the higher class call girls, the "massage parlor" that has become a fixture all over the nation, or even, in some areas, the "houses" that can afford protection.
What little energy law enforcement can afford to devote to the matter is conentrated on streetwalkers. For them, prostitution is a revolving-door crime, somewhat like gambling, in which those arrested are typically given minimal sentences and are soon back on the streets.
There is a strong element of hypocrisy in the enforcement of the prostitution laws.
First of all, the customers, even when legally guilty of an offense along with the prostitute, are virtually never prosecuted because of opposition by the commercial, hotel, and convention interests on the ground that it would be "bad for business."
Moreover, the police engage in substantial perjury to avoid the charge of entrapment and to obtain sufficient evidence for conviction "beyond a reasnable doubt." And perhaps even more upsetting, the police often must suppress their best evidence because they cannot admit having sex with the prostitute before the arrest.
Finally, the laws against prostitution make more necessary the services of the pimp to arrange bail and police protection for the illegal prostitute.
Several other non-victim crimes, although less troublesome, also deserve note. The pornography laws, the laws against homosexual activities, and, in many states, the law against adultery all establish non-victim crimes whose enforcement is spectacularly ineffectual.
In all of these crimes, a sizable percentage of the public believes tht the activity in question is immoral and wishes it stopped. In many cases, however, the next step - making the activity a criminal act - has been taken without thought as to the practical consequences of such laws should they be violated.
Only comparatively recently have we begun to think about weighing the costs of such laws against their benefits.
It is important that we question whether the criminal law is more appropriate than either tolerating the activity or regulating it in some less coercive and expensive way.